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Essential Advice on Writing and Life from Maya Angelou

by JoAnn Ryan 2 months ago in healing
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Get inspired to write, overcome adversity and foster self-esteem

Photo by Justin Ha on Unsplash

Life is full of joy and happiness, but it's also full of struggles and pain. I'm glad our world has been blessed with wise people like Dr. Maya Angelou, who've come along and left their imprint on the world. When my brain feels as though it will explode into spaghetti noodles at any minute, such wisdom is vital in keeping it all together.

Dr. Angelou and I share a birthday. I do wish I'd been bestowed with even a small fraction of her strength, courage, eloquence and intelligence. Luckily, she was extremely generous about doing interviews.

Here are some key take-aways from three such interviews, wherein her words have served to change my day and my life for the better, and hopefully yours as well.

Sections of Essential Lessons:

  1. The Tenacity of Self
  2. On Writing
  3. Making Mistakes and Regrets
  4. On Fostering Self-Esteem
  5. Race and Inclusion
  6. The Existence of Evil

"I had to trust life since I was young enough to believe that life loved the person who dared to live it."

1. The Tenacity of Self.

Maya Angelou is, above all, a proponent of the self - not in a way that is self-indulgent, but rather self-empowering.

When so much in life serves to push us back, Dr. Angelou says:

"You must push yourself forward."

The adversity and sheer unfairness of the world may lead to many negative feelings and reactions. While these reactions and feelings are often understandable, it can also hurt us far more than we think ; it may push us even further back from where we need to be in life.

We must push forward, honestly and with our greatest efforts and intentions.

"If I'm going to do it, do it completely."-Dr. Maya Angelou

In turn, if you and I are going to do something, we should do it completely.

2. On Writing

Have you ever held the belief that your writing was too great or intelligent for others to understand? Many of us writers have probably thought this at some point, I'm sure. Not only is it silly to think this way, it's also a hallmark of newbie writers to blame readers for not being able to understand them.

Any writing that is meant to be shared, must be written for both ourselves and for others. We have to write in a way that is relatable to the reader.

Not all readers of course, that would be ridiculous, but a particular audience of readers. As Dr. Angelou points out:

"I hope the reader reads and goes through the experiences with me."

"I'm talking about the human condition. What it is like to be a human being. I use the first person singular, but I'm talking about the third person plural. I'm talking about all of us."

Not so easy to master, although the best of the best, such as Maya Angelou, pull it off seamlessly, and seemingly, effortlessly. It's a viable technique for us writers to work on, to be sure.

3. Making Mistakes and Regrets

Have you ever said something you regretted? Did you ever say something or write something and had someone else correct you? Rather than take it constructively, we tend to feel as though we are being criticized or judged harshly. We may feel hurt and place ourselves on the defensive.

It doesn't have to be this way. Many things in life can be flipped into a positive, rather than a negative.

In the first video below, Dr. Angelou talks about a time when a friend corrected her on something she'd said in another interview. In response she had this to say:

"One needs other people sometimes to say, 'you better check yourself."

I love that! She could have gotten upset with her friend, or thought how dare she, but she didn't. We all make mistakes. It takes courage to identify and point out mistakes to others and it takes immense courage to express gratitude to others for pointing out our mistakes to us.

This can be a tough thing to do, right? Definitely something to work on.

Quotes for this first section were obtained here: Maya Angelou| Civil Rights|A Plus 4|1985 on YouTube.

4. On Fostering Self-Esteem

Then again, criticism isn't always delivered to us in a way that is helpful or nurturing. Some people will use it as a means to feel superior toward others or to abuse them.

One person's self-worth is ignored so that another person may feel better and smarter. Does this not happen all the time?

Sadly, it may even start in our circle of familiarity via friends, classmates, siblings or parents.

I loved what Dr. Angelou had to say about her own mother:

"She never reduced me. She never embarrassed me in front of other people, She didn't denigrate me."

When Dr. Angelou was 16, she became an unwed mother, and I marveled at what she had to say about her mother's reaction:

"Not once in my whole life did she diminish me. What a blessing. This is what a mother can do to a daughter."

Some people love to vilify other people for their mistakes, even small mistakes, and in turn we may vilify ourselves. However, we must never reduce or dimmish our own self-worth and never let feelings of embarrassment linger.

5. Race and Inclusion

So much in our world serves to separate us from one another, if we let it -perhaps none so much as race. It's our own selves who make these divisions, instead of saying: I'm a part of this world and all that is in it. Everything and everyone are one.

Discrimination and hate, more often than not, leads to more discrimination and hate. Thus, the divide grows bigger and bigger. It's a dreadful cycle and unlearning this pattern can be extremely difficult.

One of the most remarkable things about Dr. Angelou, is that she took the discrimination she'd endured, and instead of fostering hate, she used it to educate and spread her message.

When speaking about her book, Letter to my Daughter, in the second interview below, Dr. Angelou discusses who she meant for her intended audience to be:

"I had one child, a son, but I have daughters who are black and white and Asian and Spanish-speaking and Native-American. I have daughters who are fat and thin, pretty and plain, some gay and straight. I have all sorts of daughters. I have daughters who I just claimed and they claim me."

How incredible is that? How wonderful it would be if the whole world was like this.

Quotes for this middle section were obtained here: Book TV: Maya Angelou "Letter to my Daughter" on YouTube.

6. The Existence of Evil

Evil, and why it has to exist, is something we all struggle with. Most likely, all of us have personally come into contact with evil - perhaps even pure evil, at some point in our lives.

In the last interview included below, Dr. Angelou makes an interesting and rather stunning point. In speaking about evil, she repeatedly uses the word "ourselves" meaning that we are all part of the same thing.

This is hard to wrap the head around, isn't it? A thick line tends to be drawn between victim and victimizer.

Dr. Angelou's encounters with pure evil have been well-documented, such as being raped at the age of seven, or having her friend, Dr. Martin Luther King, murdered on her birthday, and coincidentally, my birthday.

She never fails to mention though, how she was able to turn things around for herself and use evil as a springboard to the positive:

"I think that the courage to confront evil and turn it by dint of will into something applicable to the development of our evolution, individually and collectively, is exciting, honorable."

"I was able to draw from human thought, human disappointments and triumphs, enough to triumph myself."

I wouldn't call this an acceptance of evil by any means, but rather an acceptance of evil being a part of life - one that we must flip into something better for the sake of our own well-being and that of the rest of the world.

Change, action, inspiration, education, empathy… whatever moves us forward instead of backward is a great thing.

How can we take our own encounters with evil and turn them into something powerful and triumphant? How can we stop ourselves from turning evil into something that consumes us with hate and bitterness? What an exciting lesson this is!

Such knowledge became the foundation of who Dr. Angelou was, and I certainly agree, she did have a tremendous gift.

Quotes for this last section was obtained here: "Facing Evil With Maya Angelou" on YouTube.

May we all walk through life a better person because of Dr. Maya Angelou!

Please note: Links are known to become broken. If this happens, you may need to do a keyword search in YouTube.


About the author

JoAnn Ryan

Writer, photographer and all-around decent person. I write about travel, photography, the business of writing and a few other things. Also check me out on Medium @JoAnnRyan.

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Comments (13)

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  • Keila Aartila18 days ago

    I adore Maya Angelou! Than you for putting together this well-written article. I encourage you to join the Vocal+Assist Facebook group to share this, if you haven't already. :)

  • Angelina F. Thomasabout a month ago

    very well written. I'm proud of you, keep up the excellence.

  • Bright Okeyeabout a month ago

    This was an exceptional piece. Kudos

  • Ensenada2 months ago

    Good inspiration for life

  • Haas Tash2 months ago

    Like your article

  • Amy Hall2 months ago

    Write more!

  • Amy Hall2 months ago

    Loved and subscribed! Can't wait to read more of your work! Consider having a look at mine and if you like it, please subscribe... there's a lot to come! I look forward to seeing more of your work!

  • B.R. Shenoy2 months ago

    She is such an inspiring human being!

  • Kylara2 months ago


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